With the death of Sir John A Macdonald, we begin a stretch of four prime ministers during the 1890s who all ruled for roughly one to two years on average. It was a chaotic time for the Conservative Party, which had lost its leader of decades and the first man to take on the helm of leadership would be John Abbott.
John Abbott was born in St. Andrews, Lower Canada on March 12, 1821 to an Anglican missionary and his wife. Throughout his early life, Abbott would visit various rural Anglican missions in Lower Canada with his father. A lover of books, Abbott would educate himself through the well-stocked library of his father.
At the age of 17, Abbott began to work for A. Laurie and Company, a wholesale dry goods firm in Montreal. He started at the bottom, selling cloth and packing apples but had to leave the company when he fell ill a few months later. After recovering, he joined another wholesale firm and it was there he began to learn bookkeeping and accounting.
When McGill College opened in 1843, Joseph Abbott would be appointed to the office that controlled the finances of the new post-secondary institute. He then recruited John to be one of the first students, and thanks to the connection of his father, John Abbott received an excellent education.
He would marry Mary Martha Bethune, who was a relative of Dr. Norman Bethune, an incredible person who has reached mythical status in China and a person who should have his own episode and will. Together, the couple would have four sons and four daughters, one of whom, William, would marry the daughter of John Hamilton Gray, a premier of Prince Edward Island. The interesting family connections don’t just stop there though. Abbott’s descendants would include John Kimble Hamilton Abbott, a member of the Demon Squadron in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, and most notably, Abbott is the great-grandfather of Christopher Plummer, and the cousin of Dr. Maude Abbott, one of Canada’s earliest female medical graduates.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Civil Law from McGill University in 1847 and two years later he got involved in politics by signing the Montreal Annexation Manifesto. This manifesto called for Canada to join the United States and was prompted because of an economic recession and the removal of tariffs preferential to colonial products by England. The manifesto was mostly being used as a way of extracting concessions from Britain, rather than as any serious threat of merging with the United States.
He would state years later that he regretted the manifesto and attributed it to his youth. Years later he would say, quote:
Nonetheless, his opponents would never let him forget that he had signed the agreement, well into his later life in the House of Commons.
Possibly in an effort to atone for signing the manifesto, Abbott would raise 300 militia recruits himself in response to the Trent Affair of 1861, and maintained the entire regiment at his own expense. The Trent Affair was an incident during the American Civil War when two Confederate diplomats were captured by the U.S. Navy from a British Royal Mail Steamer. The British government protested this heavily, and the United States eventually released the diplomats.
Abbott specialized in corporate law and his biggest case would be the defense of several Confederate agents who had raided St. Albans, Vermont from Canadian soil during the American Civil War. He argued that the Confederate agents were actually belligerents not criminals and therefore could not be extradited to the United States.
Based on his success and personal income, many saw Abbott as the most successful lawyer in Canada and by 1853 he was lecturing in commercial and criminal law at McGill University. In 1855, he was the dean of the Faculty of Law and one of his students would be Wilfrid Laurier, a future prime minister of Canada. He would serve as dean until 1880. He would use his influence with McGill University to support the first admission of female students. One of those students was the already mentioned Maude Abbott, who was his cousin and protégé. Maude had been orphaned as a young age and grew up in poverty. She believed she would live as a domestic servant but her cousin John did not allow this to happen, helping her pay for school, allowing her to become one of the first women in Quebec to graduate in Medicine. She would go on to become a specialist in children’s heart disease and was the curator of the medical museum at McGill. Sadly, despite helping her gain entry into McGill, he would not live to see her graduate as she earned her medical degree a few months after his death, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
He was also highly involved in business, holding shares and positions with several companies including the Bank of Montreal, the Dominion Mineral Company and the Intercolonial Coal Mining Company. Later in his life, his shares would include $20,000 in Molson Bank, $50,000 in the Merchants’ Bank of Canada, $8,000 in the Bank of Montreal and more in several other companies.
In 1857, he ran to serve in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada but lost. Three years later, he would finally earn a seat and from 1862 to 1863, he served as the solicitor general of Lower Canada. Also in 1862, he was the president of the Canada Central Railway, which would become part of the transcontinental railway two decades later.
When the topic of Confederation came up, Abbott initially was not supportive as he feared there would be a reduction in the political power of the English speaking minority of Lower Canada. In 1865, he would join the Conservative Party and he would put forward a proposal to protect the 12 English Quebec ridings, which would be implemented in the British North America Act of 1867.
The same year that Canada became a country, 1867, Abbott was elected to the House of Commons and graduated with a Doctor of Civil Law. From 1867 to 1874, he would serve as the Chair of the House of Commons Banking Committee. Abbott would serve until 1874 when he was removed from his seat due to the Pacific Scandal and his involvement in it. He was the legal advisor to Sir Hugh Allan, the main financer of the railway syndicate to build the transcontinental railway. It was in this role that he received a telegram from Prime Minister Macdonald that stated, quote:
“I must have another ten thousand, will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me, answer today.”
This telegram was stolen from the office of Abbott and published, breaking the Scandal.
His role in the railway likely came from a passion he had stemming from his childhood. His father was an early promoter of the railway that would circumvent the rapids at Carillon, and his brother was a railway engineer.
He would narrowly lose in the 1878 election, but regained his seat in 1880, only to have it voided because of bribery allegations. He would win again, in 1881, and kept his seat. That same year, he drafted the charter that created the Canadian Pacific Railway and served as the company’s solicitor until 1887. Back in politics, and working on the CPR, he made sure to abstain from all discussions related to the railway in the House of Commons.
In 1887, Macdonald appointed Abbott to the Senate and he served as the Leader of the Senate from 1887 to 1893. At the same time, he was the mayor of Montreal from 1887 to 1889. On top of this, he also served as president of the Canadian Pacific Railway for a time. From 1887 to 1893, he was the Government Leader of the Senate, from 1887 to 1891 he was a Minister Without A Portfolio and from 1891 to 1892, he was the President of the Privy Council.
A new job title would be added to the resume of Abbott on June 16, 1891 when Sir John A. Macdonald died in office following a stroke. Abbott initially wanted John Thompson to succeed Macdonald but the Conservative Party, which was divided at the time, asked him to take over. Part of this was also because Macdonald saw Abbott as his successor, saying as much prior to his stroke, when he said quote:
“When I am gone, you will have to rally around Abbott. He is your only man.”
This would also make Abbott the first Canadian-born prime minister.
His thoughts on politics is shown in arguably his most famous quote, which is often paraphrased as “I hate politics.” But the entire quote is:
As for why he became Prime Minister, Abbott would say, quote:
“I am not particularly obnoxious to anybody.”
Why would Abbott enter politics if he detested the practice? Well, at the time he came into politics in the 1860s, politics were closely associated with the railway and it comes back to his love of the railroad that brought him into a leadership role.
As prime minister, he became the first or two prime ministers to hold office while in the Senate rather than the House of Commons.
The country was soon finding itself in an economic recession, and the same year that Abbott took office he was also dealing with the McGreevy-Langevin scandal. This scandal erupted when Hector-Louis Langevin, the Minister of Public Works, had conspired with Thomas McGreevy to defraud the government. This took a major toll on the Conservative Party, which found itself fracturing. Nonetheless, Abbott got down to work on government business including bringing changes to the civil service and revising the criminal code. Abbott’s ability as prime minister was showing when through 52 by-elections during his term, 42 were won by his party, which increased his seat number in the House of Commons by 13. Abbott did work hard during his brief time, clearing out the government backlog left during Macdonald’s time in office. Many saw him as a worthy successor to Macdonald for his ability to increase the confidence inside and outside the party during his time in office.
Sadly, Abbott was in his early-70s and one year into office he attempted to make Thompson prime minister but anti-Catholic sentiment among the Conservatives prevented this.
In 1892, Abbott was suffering from the early stages of brain cancer. In October he left for England to seek Medical assistance and then resigned his role as prime minister soon after. He would retire on Nov. 24, 1892, with John Thompson taking over as prime minister. Following his resignation, Abbott was knighted, becoming the second prime minister to receive the honour after Sir John A. Macdonald. Abbott would die less than a year later on Oct. 30, 1893.
His funeral would be held on Nov. 2, 1893 at the Christ Church Cathedral, with the wealthiest and most powerful men in Canada attending. His wife Mary would survive him by five years, passing away in 1898.
In 1938, Abbott was named a Person of National Historic Significance. In 1971, John Abbott College opened on a campus shared with the Macdonald College of McGill University. Mount Sir John Abbott, located in the Premier Range of the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia is named for Abbott. Originally known as Mount Kiwa, it was one of the first mountains in the Premier Range to be named for a prime minister. It was officially named for him on Sept. 6, 1927. In Quebec, there is also a town called St. Paul d’Abbotsford, which is named for his family.
While Abbott is most remembered for his time in politics, including as prime minister, he also worked for charitable activities. He was a president of the Fraser Institute, a free public library, and was one of the founders of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was the first president of the Board of Governors of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and he pushed to create libraries and institutions to help the poor, deaf and blind. He was also noted for his hobby of growing orchids, and his collection was considered to be one of the best in all of Canada. He was also noted for having a powerful and beautiful singing voice and he was often a member of local choirs, usually leading the singing.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Britannica, Wikipedia, Biographi, CanadaInfo, Library and Archives Canada, Quebec Heritage News,